On Tuesday, the New York Times told the story of how close Afghanistan came to cracking up last week. A regional governor, furious with the preliminary results in the presidential election runoff, appeared ready to declare a breakaway government led by Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate trailing in the results. Others echoed his threat. Abdullah and his supporters have made accusations and pointed to evidence of election fraud.
Predictably, those in the camp of the other candidate, Ashraf Ghani, responded by making similar charges. Germany was the first to inform Afghan officials that it would withdraw all funding and training of troops if the Abdullah backers bolted. Soon, President Obama telephoned Abdullah to issue his own strong warning, urging patience until John Kerry, the secretary of state, arrived to work through the crisis.
Over the weekend, Kerry and the two Afghan candidates delivered. They agreed to a process for auditing the vote, international observers having expressed skepticism about the announced turnout, supposedly exceeding 8 million. More, Kerry won agreement on a sweeping plan for altering the shape of the Afghan government. For the short term, there will be a unity government, the runner-up becoming the chief executive under the president, leading in two years to an empowered prime minister.
All of this is fragile, the point punctuated by a car bombing in the eastern part of the country on Tuesday, the death toll approaching 100, more questions surfacing than answers. These events, along with the surrounding turmoil in the Middle East, provide a reminder of why the Obama White House must be prepared to re-evaluate the president’s timetable for exiting Afghanistan.
The president has pledged to reduce the number of American troops to 9,800 by the end of this year, then 5,500 in December 2015 and, finally, to a small embassy contingent a year later. The scheduled withdrawal mirrors the view of an American public understandably weary of the commitment and the toll in casualties.
Yet if Afghanistan has proved immovable, again, on many fronts, hard lessons relearned, the election fallout signals how quickly things can get much worse. Know, too, how conditions have improved for Afghans the past dozen years. For instance, 6 million children, boys and girls, attend school. Life expectancy has increased by 20 years. The rate of infant mortality has fallen 40 percent. These and other achievements are worth trying to preserve, and may require extending the stay of an American military presence, at some higher level, if it is needed and requested.
The fracturing now in Iraq offers a telling indication. Islamic extremists have returned and rapidly expanded their hold and influence. Would the Taliban do the same in Afghanistan, aiming to rekindle its relationship with al-Qaida?
Hamid Karzai, the current Afghan president, has a deserved reputation for corruption and inconsistency. Most revealing has been his personal way of managing power, attending to relationships with warlords and tribal leaders. He has put less focus on the task of developing enduring institutions, those pieces crucial to sustained protection of such things as free speech, the rule of law and the rights of women.
Perhaps little more can be expected in Afghanistan. The choices for American policy-makers there are difficult and dissatisfying. It says something that after all these years, an episode suddenly can take matters to the brink. It points to the White House using the leverage it has, reasonably and responsibly, to keep Afghanistan away from escalating disorder and bloodshed, or pointed toward something better.